Devoted wife warns teachers on asbestos risk
A widow whose husband died after being diagnosed with a cancer linked to exposure to asbestos believes his teaching career “ultimately killed him” and wants to warn other former teachers their health could be at risk.
27 September 2022
In an interview with , Mrs Plater said her husband, John Plater, qualified as a teacher in 1974 and taught design technology. During his employment, he was exposed to asbestos, with the main exposure believed to have occurred at a school in East Sussex in 1979.
She said her husband was exposed as he used asbestos gloves each time a pupil approached the heat treatment area and over time, these became threadbare and worn meaning asbestos fibres were released into the atmosphere.
The school also supplied asbestos fibre mats for pupils to place pieces of design work on. This caused dust to be created on the surface of those mats and over time, the mats became old and worn releasing more fibres into the atmosphere.
“John also dry swept surfaces at the end of the day and was unknowingly circulating asbestos fibres around,” added Mrs Plater.
He had no symptoms until September 2019 when he began suffering abdominal pains. Doctors suspected gallstones, but during scans, they realised it was something more serious and in January 2020, he was diagnosed with , a cancer of the lining of the lungs.
The disease is incurable but Mr Plater underwent treatment to try to slow it down. Mr Plater, 68, underwent chemotherapy and invasive surgery which took its toll on his health and he sadly died in February 2021, leaving behind his wife of 48 years, their two daughters and three grandchildren.
Could other teachers and former teachers be affected?
Mrs Plater wants to speak out about her husbands’ story to warn other teachers and former teachers of the risks posed by asbestos, decades after working at schools where it is present and about the need to have their health checked.
Lynne Squibb, the chief executive of the y that supports those affected by asbestos related disease including the Plater family, raised that a number of teachers are dying after exposure to asbestos year-on-year.
“Asbestos was the material to use during the 1950s and 1960s as it was good for insulating properties and fire resistant and it was used in many public buildings such as schools,” she said.
“We have lobbied the Government and written to MPs for many years asking for a planned removal of asbestos from state schools but they keep telling us that the say asbestos is safe to remain in schools if it is properly maintained.
“But I don’t think we would be seeing rising numbers of teachers dying of asbestos-related disease if this was the case.
“We believe there will be ongoing risks to teachers and pupils until asbestos is removed from state schools and public buildings including low level exposure when teachers pin things to ceilings and walls.
“But we feel the Government won’t commit to removing asbestos because of the expense.”
Although the claim was made against the local authority which paid out the compensation, Mrs Plater told i she believes the Government is to blame for not taking action to remove asbestos from schools.
“There is a lot of asbestos still in schools and I am concerned that teachers are not flagged as needing health checks to make sure they have not been affected.
“Mesothelioma takes a long time to develop and I think it is criminal that the risk to school teachers is not publicised more.”
John McClean, outgoing chairman of the which aims to protect education workers and pupils from the dangers of asbestos in educational buildings, told i the latest figures for teachers and educational professionals who have died of mesothelioma deaths is 102 during 2019.
But he says the true figure will be even higher due to the way deaths are recorded: “Anyone who dies over the age of 75 is not recorded as an industrial death."
“Also, the HSE records mesothelioma deaths by the last profession someone worked. So if someone worked as a teacher for many years and then took retirement and worked as something else before their death, their occupation would not be listed as a teacher.”
Mr McClean added that while 40 to 50 years ago, mesothelioma deaths greatly affected shipyard workers and people who worked in demolition and lagging, those professions have now largely died out and the cases occurring now are people who were in the buildings where they worked.
“Mesothelioma can happen up to 50 years after exposure and is a slow growth cancer from very low levels of exposure and there is a rising number of teachers affected,” he said.
“It is in the fabric of some buildings but people do not necessarily know it is there. When you are in a building, the legal duty is with the local authority.
“Schools which are more than 50 years old will still potentially have asbestos and around 85 per cent of schools in the UK have some asbestos in them.”
How Slater and Gordon were involved
Mr Plater contacted Slater and Gordon in February 2020, via an asbestos support group. The case was listed for a hearing in the High Court to determine whether the council had any real prospects of defending the claim. Shortly before that hearing the council conceded liability and agreed to pay compensation in the total sum of £245,000.
“Cases like this are incredibly important as they highlight the plight of former school teachers, workers and pupils who have been negligently exposed to contaminated asbestos dust and are consequently diagnosed many decades later with an incurable disease. This is through no fault of their own and has a devastating effect on many families.
“The Asbestos in Schools campaign has raised much awareness of the dangers of the widespread use of asbestos in school buildings and equipment, but little has been done by this and previous governments to remove all asbestos containing materials from school premises – materials which continue to present a danger to our children and their teachers.
“It is hoped that this win in the High Court will further raise awareness of this issue and help safeguard our children and teachers against the threat asbestos continues to pose.”